- The Washington Times - Friday, July 29, 2011

GEORGE SZELL: A LIFE OF MUSIC
By Michael Charry
University of Illinois Press, $35 464 pages, illustrated

As a pianist and composer prodigy, young George Szell was said to be the new Mozart. As an adult, when he concentrated on conducting, he was likened to Toscanini. In any pantheon of great musicians of the mid-20th century, George Szell (1897-1970) figures prominently. This book by Michael Charry, a gifted but self-effacing musician himself, who was on the conducting staff of the Cleveland Orchestra in Szell’s last decade, is the first full-length biography of the man who made that orchestra “second to none.”

Mr. Charry says that he did not set out to be Szell’s biographer, but when Mrs. Szell asked him to find one for her, nobody stepped forward. Biography may not be Mr. Charry’s natural calling, but he is a thorough, knowledgeable researcher and a straightforward writer. More important, he had priceless experience in dealing personally with Szell, even to the extent of once being drafted to play through the score of Mahler’s 4th Symphony on the piano with Szell. (The author was assigned the notes below middle C, but Szell ended up all over the place.)

Mr. Charry credits numerous editors and colleagues with helping to wrestle the material into a manageable size, but the latter half of the book still reads somewhat like a catalog of concert programs, reviews and travel. Nonetheless, musicians, concertgoers and general readers will be captivated by the author’s behind-the-scenes look at what goes into shaping a world-class orchestra.


George Szell’s Hungarian parents recognized his genius almost from birth - he criticized his mother’s piano playing when he was 2 - and saw to it that he was tutored by the best that Central Europe could offer. In fact, the author comments that Szell’s sheltered upbringing as an only child in an adult world may have contributed to his “often evidenced lack of awareness of others’ feelings.” He made his public debut in Vienna at age 10, but after one tour of the major music centers of Europe, he returned to his studies. Nevertheless, late in life, Szell said that he was a “pretty finished musician at the age of 12.”

Mr. Charry thinks it was during Szell’s tempestuous adolescence that “certain traits emerged - a tendency toward cruel practical jokes and gluttony - that would appear in his adult life as well.” He eventually abandoned composing for conducting and became a protege of Richard Strauss at the Berlin Opera House. Opera conducting would be a staple of his professional career, in Europe and at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Szell’s 24 years as music director of the Cleveland Orchestra, from 1946 to his death after a tour of the Far East, are the main focus of Mr. Charry’s book. The author details the determination - not to say ruthlessness - with which Szell set out to strengthen the orchestra.

During his first season, he fired a total of 17 players, wooed back key players who had left, added an extra week of nine rehearsals before the first week of concerts and brightened Severance Hall’s subdued acoustics. He hired away the concertmaster of the Pittsburgh Symphony, Samuel Thaviu - but neglected to tell him he had secretly engaged Joseph Gingold to take over the next season. Throughout his career in Cleveland, Szell shamelessly lured away other orchestras’ prize principals, which is why he was only once invited to guest-conduct the National Symphony.

As Mr. Charry notes, “No detail was too small for Szell’s involvement, from the font size of the programs (‘… I find the type of the programs much too small.’) to the pricing of the cheapest seats ($2.40 is ‘much too low’).” But, according to Szell, his main achievement at Cleveland was training his musicians to listen carefully to each other, “to notice everything that was being played”: phrasing, intonation, ensemble, balance and style.

Many readers will be fascinated with Mr. Charry’s insights into handling the conflicting demands of conductor, managers and orchestra unions; all those prickly egos (Can the principal who is being removed be persuaded to take second chair?); and the rewards and perils of touring abroad.

When Szell was quoted in an Amsterdam publication as saying “American orchestras are the best” and “American musicians work much harder than their colleagues here … because of the strong element of competition in the American society,” he had to “clarify” by saying that he had actually said that “in matters of intonation, precision and beauty of sound, the American top orchestras are unbeatable” and “The average American orchestra musician works perhaps fewer hours, but works with more efficiency than his European counterpart.”

Mr. Charry recounts some memorable anecdotes and some new twists on old ones, such as Szell’s feud with Rudolf Bing, general manager of the Met, which merits a chapter unto itself and ends with this:

“In spite of his effort to make up with George Szell, Rudolf Bing remained bitter, leading him to utter an immortal quip: Told by a colleague that Szell was his own worst enemy, Bing retorted, ‘Not while I’m alive!’ Szell was well aware of Bing’s bon mot. Years later, a visitor to Szell’s home heard Helene Szell say to her husband, ‘George, you’re your own worst enemy.’ To which he answered, ‘Not while Rudolf Bing is alive.’ ” Despite what must have been a temptation to dwell on Szell’s notorious “blowups,” this is not a tell-all book, but rather a thoughtful, engaging assessment of a golden era in American orchestral history, which Mr. Charry summarizes this way:

“All the Cleveland Orchestra’s technical proficiency alone would not have set it apart from any other top-notch orchestra. Any one of their many virtues - the impeccable precision of ensemble and intonation, the finely calculated balances, the gradation of dynamics, the power - was matched at various times by one or another of their peer orchestras: the Chicago under Fritz Reiner or the Berlin with Herbert von Karajan, for example.

“What made the Szell-Cleveland collaboration special and unique was the combination of all those virtues, plus Szell’s stylistic insight and depth of musical understanding, which he infused into the orchestra. The orchestra’s deep involvement in the music and caring about the standards that Szell set created a climate of dedication and hard work in which all gave their best to achieve the best.”

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